The image above is from one of six posters being distributed by the Family Planning Association (fpa), (the UK’s leading sexual health charity, according to their website), as part of their annual Sexual Health Week, the theme of which this year is “It’s My Right!” The “It’s My Right” campaign strives to convey that everyone, (including those with learning disabilities/ difficulties), has a fundamental right to have sex and relationships. This image, which I ganked from their homepage, is followed immediately with the line “Everyone has the right to have sex.” Although I have a soft rule against agreeing with statements as general as this one (on the basis that more things are gray than aren’t, and I have a sense, always, that someone somewhere could come up with a situation in which I would disagree), my impulse here is to support the statement. In a consensual relationship, without exploiting the other person(s) involved, with the understanding that consent and exploitation are tricky lines to define, I believe that everyone has the right to have sex. However, I do take issue with aspects of the campaign, or the language the campaign is using, because while I follow them as far as that endstop, I also want to edit out the period, put in a semi-colon, and add “everyone has the right not to have sex.” Now… given that this year they’re attempting to advocate for a population (people with learning disabilities/ difficulties) who society attempts to force into an asexual identification and lifestyle (similarly to the way we attempt to control and limit the sexuality of other populations, such as senior citizens), I understand that the flip-side of that statement isn’t necessarily relevant to their cause. But isn’t there a way to articulate their cause without hurting other groups that are just as in need of strong advocates?
If you suspected I meant the asexual community, you guessed right, although honestly it’s not the fpa’s decision to leave out the second-half of that “everyone has a right” statement that bothers me. (After all, we’d never get anything written if we also had to write the flip-side.) It’s the fact that some of their language strikes me as directly harmful to asexual individuals, which I find bothersome. For instance, in the image above, if you can manage to read it, the caption says, “People with learning disabilities enjoy sex. It’s a fact of life” which frankly, sparks a serious facepalm on my part. A fact of life? Seriously? I recognize the possibility that they’re trying to play on the “facts of life” rhetoric that surrounds those painful, sit-com-esque discussions of “the birds and the bees” but I think they make a serious misstep when they imply that enjoying sex is a universal given. Are there no learning-disabled people who suffer pain during intercourse for medical reasons? And even if they are somehow exempt from such problems, do they also manage to magically land further from the asexual-end of the desire spectrum than the rest of us? (Do they not have the same probability of being asexual, even if that probability is truly 1 in 100?) This seems especially ridiculous to me given that autism sometimes leads to a learning-disabled classification (however problematic that equation is) and autism has been notably prevalent in the asexual community. The truth remains that even if the fpa could prove that all learning-disabled people desire sex, I would still take issue with their claim that all people do, given that I’ve met several who simply don’t. I much prefer the less catchphrase-worthy version on their Sexual Health Week page, which reads, “Everybody has the right to have sex and relationships if they want.” (Emphasis, not surprisingly, mine.)
I think this struck me more tonight because I just finished reading about a decision by a circuit court in DC that declared “sexual relations” a “major life activity,” such that the inability to engage in them (in this instance, due to various treatments/ surgeries related to breast cancer) would qualify as a “disability.” Now, obviously, asexuality is not defined by an inability to engage in sex, but rather a lack of desire to do so. Still, I think there are serious ramfications for asexual people as part of this decision, especially since the “you’re disabled!” argument is one of the ways people routinely invalidate asexuality as an orientation. By (legally) declaring sexual relations a major life activity, the court is setting up for oppression a population of people who haven’t engaged in that activity. Just as people who are “missing out” on marriage or “missing out” on having children suffer the social consequences of those decisions (whether are not they truly are decisions), those who would dismiss asexuality now have one more prop for their argument that asexual individuals are “missing out” on experiencing sex. (Regardless of whether or not they’re compelled have sex in the first place.)
Still more bizarre is the fact that the circuit court decided to focus on this particular aspect of the case in the first place. Granted, I don’t have a great deal of legal expertise, but it seems to me that this case — in which Kathy Adams was fired from the US Foreign Service after developing breast cancer — was one of employment discrimination and/or potential paternalism by the employer. The case went like this: The State Department argued that “many of its posts lack[ed] the follow-up care it believed Adams required” which gave them cause to revoke her medical clearance. Adams then sued, on the grounds that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 “prohibits federal agencies from discriminating in employment against disabled individuals.” The State Department shot back that Adams had no record of a disability, in response to which she apparently argued that “her breast cancer treatment rendered her completely unable to engage in sexual relations. Due to the scarring from her mastectomy and breast reconstruction, her overall post-surgery physical appearance, lack of physical sensation, loss of libido accompanying her medication, or some combination of these factors, she claim[ed] that her ‘ability to enter into romantic relationships ha[d] been crippled indefinitely and perhaps permanently.’” Rather than sorting out whether the State Department had the right to fire Adams based on their understanding of her treatment requirements, the courts (apparently) took the bait and spent their time determining whether Adams’ post-treatment condition constituted a disability, such that she would deserve protection under the Rehab Act. According to the court’s decision, “as a basic physiological act practiced by a vast portion of the population, a cornerstone of family and marital life, a conduit to emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and a crucial element in intimate relationships, sex easily qualifies as a ‘major’ life activity.”
This is where my jaw started to drop, friends. I mean, any points they gained by trading in “everyone” for “a vast portion of the population” were basically demolished for me when they decided sex was a crucial element of intimate relationships. I don’t think it even requires the introduction of asexual couples into the conversation to prove that not all intimacy is sexual. As often as we use “intimate” as a euphemism for “sexual,” it still doesn’t even rank among the top 5 definitions (of thirteen, mind you) on dictionary.com. Intimacy also covers friendship, personal closeness, and even those romantic relationships that do not involve or do not yet involve sex. So, how is it a crucial element exactly? And how is it a cornerstone of family and marital life, when plenty of married couples aren’t having it (or aren’t having it often), and I can vouch (much to my relief) for the fact that I personally have never had sex with anyone in my family, and I don’t think this has lowered the quality of our dynamic. (Quite the opposite, actually.) While I can see, to some extent, the notion of reproduction as a potential cornerstone, unless we’re giving “sexual relations” the rather limited and heterosexist definition of “egg meets sperm” I don’t think that qualifies either. Ever heard of in vitro fertilization anyone? Surrogate parenting? Adoption? We can make families without sexual relations, even if babymakin’ still technically requires the fertilization of an egg.
The court even went so far as to state that, “at the risk of stating the obvious” (emphasis mine, again) “sex is unquestionably a significant human activity, one our species has been engaging in at least since that biblical injuction to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” Oh. Snap. Did you seriously just cite the Bible as a historical source in a legal judgment, DC? Tell me you didn’t. Please. Please tell me you didn’t. Of course, even if you strike that last part, you’ve still managed to silence the experience of an untold number of people who are not having sex, on top of declaring them disabled. Rather than dealing with the main issue at hand (potential employment discrimination), you’ve taken it upon yourself to label sex significant, when plenty of people who have every ability to engage in it are vocally disagreeing with you. Can you see me rolling my eyes at you, Washington? Are you paying attention?
To top it off, the decision is being cheered by certain members of the sex-positive/ sexual communities, who feel that the open-ended definition of “sexual relations” (read: the lack of a definition), which both the plaintiff and the judges seem to understand pretty broadly, (in that they imply everything from “body image and libido to ability to engage in physical activities and the emotional and spiritual fulfillment that may result from sexual activities” is included), suggests legal protection for sexuality in general, rather than simply for reproduction (as was the case in previous rulings.) To be perfectly honest, I’m a big fan of a broad definition of sexuality. I would really like to live in a society where “sexuality” and “sex” mean more than sexual acts, although I doubt many people think about more than that when they hear the words at this point. I am all for a more inclusive definition, and legal protection for newly included populations; I would just urge the sex-positive community (and the fpa and Washington) to pay attention to all the voices out there (including those at AVEN), and make a serious effort not to throw anyone under the bus in their attempts to advocate for someone else.
Short version (since what preceded obviously wasn’t one): Everyone has the right to be who they are, but that includes the right to not be who they aren’t. So, while we all have the right to safe, healthy, consensual sex; we also have the right to no sex at all, and to not be granted a “lesser” or “disabled” status based on where we fall on the a/sexual spectrum… which I guess just points back to why we need to fight for a DSM that doesn’t pathologize asexuality, as well as a place in the sex-positive community, which would lend toward enough of a dialogue that decisions like this one aren’t so automatically praised.
Tags: asexual, asexuality, disability, disabled, employment discrimination, family planning association, intimacy, law, legal decisions, rights, sex, sexual, sexual health week, sexual relations, sexuality, violet blue